He was beautiful.
I’d been holding the precious baby boy outside a classroom where his mom was attending a scholarship workshop with her teenage daughter. The mom was an acquaintance of mine, and when the baby had begun to fuss during the workshop, she had accepted my offer to hold him outside the room for her until the class was done.
The baby was perfect. His hands were so soft, his back perfectly curved, and his head covered in feathery blond hair. In transferring him to me, his mom had laid his head on my shoulder, and as I held him, he snuggled perfectly into my chest. After the initial fuss, he settled down as a peaceful bundle of warmth.
I was totally in love. After twenty minutes or so, he seemed to be getting a little restless, so I started walking around and showing him things – coat hangers on a coat rack, posters on the wall. He was particularly enamored of the coat hangers, so we hung out there for a while. Then as he got drowsy again, I found a seat and re-situated him in my lap.
It was then that I noticed. Because he had been lying on my shoulder, I had never gotten a good look at his tiny face. But as I moved him into my lap, I noticed the unmistakable.
This child had Down syndrome.
The slanted eyes, the thick neck – the features were clearly distinctive. It took a minute for me to grasp it. This infant had what many hopeful parents would dread – a serious defect. But as I studied his face, my heart couldn’t see defectiveness. Deep in my heart I was, and still am, convinced: this baby was perfect. He was beautiful.
She was beautiful, too. It was a year later, and I was in a different setting in a different state. I was teaching a debate camp to high school students, and at the particular moment I will describe, I was standing outside a classroom, waiting for a group of students to finish a debate round. A mom whose son was debating in the room also waited outside for him to finish, and with her waited a little girl, probably ten or eleven years old. One look at her face told that she had Down Syndrome.
As she looked at me, her face brightened. I asked her what her name was, and without skipping a beat, she answered confidently, “Princess Sarah Walker!”* I asked her if she liked princesses, and she smiled and pointed to her shoes – a pair of pink Crocs with several princess pins in them. She explained what the pins were with enthusiasm, and then quickly shifted subjects to tell me about her favorite kind of bagels. I smiled, thoroughly enjoying our conversation.
A moment later I excused myself to use the restroom. To my surprise, Sarah followed me right into the bathroom and patiently waited outside my stall. I was a little unsure what she was doing out there, but as I approached the sink, she just stood by the paper towel dispenser watching me, her face bright with that unmistakable smile. As I shook the water off my hands, she meticulously pulled several paper towels out of the paper towel dispenser and handed them to me with a beaming face. I took them with a smile of my own, and we left the bathroom together. When we returned to the hallway we had been waiting in, Sarah hoisted herself onto a table and sat on it. I sat next to her, and absentmindedly began to swing my leg.
Watching me intently, she asked matter-of-factly, “Do you like swinging your legs?”
“Yes I do. Do you?”
“Yes!” she answered with enthusiasm.
And so the leg-swinging began. Side-by-side we sat – me in dress pants and black leather dress shoes and Sarah in jeans and pink-princess Crocs – swinging our legs together. It was beautiful.
She was beautiful.
Somewhere along the way, the recognition of the beauty of children with Down Syndrome has been completely tossed aside. Most people do not stop and think about the fact that babies with Down Syndrome have little fingers, love to snuggle, and like to play with plastic coat hangers. Most people do not think about children like Sarah, with favorite colors and favorite bagels, with dreams of being a princess, and with hearts so sweet that they might follow you to the bathroom just to get the paper towels for you.
Instead, we think of worthlessness and ugliness. We think of philosophical excuses about quality of life. We think of the impossibilities of fitting “imperfect” children into a perfect life plan.
And we end up living in a country where nine out of ten children known to have Down syndrome are purposely aborted. What we choose to think does not change fact.
These children are beautiful.